Inside the cabinet of curiosities

We explore the debut sculpture series, entitled the Tabernacle of Memories, by Wim van Zyl.

Wim van Zyl’s art echoes his life: an assembling of history, of experiences, and of what he calls, many ‘small deaths’. He began working obsessively on his first piece, Emerging the Chrysalis of Being, in 2017, in the midst of a mid-life crisis. It was a dark time for the artist, as he sought meaning in God and Krishna and tarot; and in his past. A hairdresser by trade – ‘with an intuitive eye for balance’ – he took a course in taxidermy, to literally feel that which was dead. To understand what it means to peel skin from bone. To make a sacrifice.

In many ways, Emerging the Chrysalis of Being is a projection of Wim’s own desires. He wanted to be adorned in beautiful things – the ornaments of the Victorians; jewels; eccentricities – but felt unable or ashamed to present himself to the world in this way. He had long collected such pieces – his own ‘cabinet of curiosities’ – and so his work became a feverish outlet: an altar, a shrine, an idol and icon. The ‘old Wim’ needed to die – in a symbolic, cathartic rite of passage – and a new one reborn.

Emerging the Chrysalis of Being proved to be the first in a series of twelve sculptural works. Wim retrospectively titled the series the Tabernacle of Memories. In the Hebrew bible, the tabernacle is the earthly home of God – the holiest of holies. For Wim, it is the nexus of his rebirth; a knotting together – a glueing, collecting, curating – of the many fragments of his life.

Each of his sculptures is intricately layered, combining found objects in a surprising and often playful way: valuable heirlooms, a gift from a friend, or a marketplace find. Accidental items are deliberately and deliberatively recycled, reinvented and honoured. Skulls, fragile skeletons, and remnants of taxidermy projects are carefully balanced in a harmonious ‘curiosity’. Death is made beautiful. Ultimately, the Tabernacle series – although provocative, macabre, intriguing – is optimistic. It juxtaposes, it shines, it hides and reveals. Even when presenting a skull, there is (literally) a mischievous twinkle in the eye. The series is contradictory – the human experience – but it looks ahead. It is a representation of a life’s work, and of life itself.

Emerging the Chrysalis of Being

The centerpiece of Emerging the Chrysalis of Being is an antique monkey’s skull – Wim’s grandmother’s earrings serve as obols – framed by warthog’s tusks from a fellow artist. These are surrounded by dried chameleons, as well a chameleon skeleton (that a cousin found in his Stellenbosch garden). Wim’s sangoma – ‘everybody needs a sangoma’ – gifted him the seahorses. The crucifix is also from a friend; a purchase in Italy. The Nautilus shell embodies the ‘golden ratio’ so often found in nature: a symbol of symmetry. Febrile insects interpose themselves in the diorama – ‘moths are magical’ – while birds and feathers evoke angelic hope.

The skull is topped by grouse-feet brooches, once good-luck gifts from Scottish wives to their husbands as they went hunting. They are signs of love and remembrance: ‘God watch over us while we’re apart.’ At the apex of the piece are two butterflies: the blue morpho is from a market in Milnerton, and the black-and-white one a present from a New York client. Although the print presents the sculpture face-on, it has been structured to resonate and reward from every angle.


Mao is the second in the Tabernacle of Memories series. At the centre of this white-and-gold piece is a 1960s bust of Mao Zedong himself. The text reads ‘long live the chairman’. (He died in 1976, at the age of 82.) Mao is reimagined here, a feminised version of the masculine revolutionary so familiar in Chinese propaganda. The visage purposefully provokes… but surely it takes a real man to wear lipstick?

The bust is ringed in pearls from Wim’s ouma, with a bright red bindi a challenge to the chairman’s state-atheist ambitions. Recurring themes in Wim’s work are present here, too: wings and feathers inspire hope; nautilus shells – ‘in stereo’ – symbolise balance. There are beginnings, endings, and beauty. ‘We must decorate or die!’

A halo of the Cape’s white cabbage butterflies suggests loss and reverence, while the brooched papegaai casts a sidewise glance at the whole show. For Wim, Mao is all about good fortune – ‘from those ancestors supporting you’ – and a sense of aesthetic theatre.

Wim locked himself away in his Cape Town home while completing this work. He didn’t seek inspiration from other artists – although ‘assemblage’ has a history dating back to the early 1900s – and rejected offers of help or advice. This had to be his process, alone. When he did reemerge, it was as if from a period of mourning: as a ‘fuller’ version of himself. He is, as he puts it, still a work-in-progress – ‘ek is beslis nie klaar nie’. But Wim is certainly more balanced. More comfortable beneath his skin. And he occasionally wears grouse-foot brooches.

Limited edition digital images of Emerging the Chrysalis of Being and Mao are available in three sizes on a variety of archival papers.


Words: Jonathan Bain
Production: J-P de la Chaumette
Images: supplied and by Russell Smith

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